The concept of multiculturalism carries with it both the literal burdens and benefits of peaceful coexistence. We tend not to think about it much, insulated by the everpresent comfort of those who think (and maybe even worship) like us… until we have children. Our little nose miners bring so many changes to our lives, one of which is the persistent, nagging push to integrate outside that warm security blanket of like-minded individuals we’ve found ourselves wrapped within. That’s when things get interesting.
Many people have said that “life is a collection of moments”. How we handle each moment makes a big impact on our life as a whole, as well as the lives of those with whom we share these moments. It’s important to remember this, especially when dealing with children.
Our adult children currently don’t harbor any particular interest in the subject of religion (pretty much like most people their age), and our youngest is encouraged to steer clear of the topic of religion with her friends and to just be an unencumbered 8-year-old. She’s certainly not old enough to have a worldview, let alone a label. But we’re surrounded by a large number of families that practice varying forms of Christianity. So it’s tough for her to fit in with her peer group, as you can imagine.
Schoolyard epistemology can be very different for an 8-year-old than it is for a child in high school. For an older child, it’s about challenging ideas and making those with religious beliefs really think about why they hold them. For a young child, it’s more about diffusing the situation and changing the subject to something more appropriate. But there are times when a young child is pressed and needs to be able to respond to some degree. That response is an opportunity to diffuse the situation, and (potentially) prevent it from recurring by answering in a way that causes the other child to think beyond the church club mindset.
We talk with our daughter about our worldview, morality, and all the other normal concerns a parent would discuss with their child. She understands that we don’t believe in gods and ghosts and things like that. And she knows that she’s too young to be worrying about these things; that it’s something children her age shouldn’t discuss casually. She also knows that when the time comes, if she wants to experience church, or other place of worship, we’d be happy to take her and help explain the rituals and answer questions as best we can. We try to balance this with the need to respect other parents’ right to raise their children as they see fit.
All that said, one of the primary tenets of any religion is to recruit new believers, so children of religious parents have no problem interrogating other kids who aren’t in their church club. In our case, most of the time, she’ll get benign questions from them regarding the reason she doesn’t go to church. But there are tougher questions as well. To help our daughter cope and begin to understand the irrational view of religious belief, we form a conversation around the questions so that she gets context and ideas on how to respond and diffuse and get back to simply being a second grader. Of course, some of the responses are hard for her to remember or even understand, which is why we prefer that she avoid the topic whenever possible. But in time she will understand well enough.
Obviously, there will be plenty of time to discuss these matters with her peers when she’s an appropriate age. But so far our experience is that the children of religious parents bring up the topic at some point. And of all the times the topic has been raised, it has almost always been raised by the other children. Our daughter simply doesn’t think about these things. But when cornered, her responses must be honest, straightforward, give the other child something to think about (the schoolyard epistemology part), and give her a way to change the subject.
Here is one typical exchange we’ve re-enacted with her.
Q: “Why don’t you go to church?”
A: “There are a lot of gods and churches. Which church?”
Q: “My church.”
A: “My parents believe different things.” or “My parents said that I can go to a church when I’m older if I want to.”
A: “…Besides, a lot of kids in this school don’t go to your church. Can we just play [something] now?”
If the other child continues to press the question, there are other responses we recommend to her, like the following.
Q: “Why?” or “You should go to church.”
A: “Why do you think we should go?”
Q: “If you don’t [believe in God/go to church] you’ll go down to the bad place with the Devil when you die.”
A: “Does your god love everyone?”
A: “Does he send good people to that bad place?”
A: “Do you think I’m a good person?”
A: “Then don’t worry about me going to that bad place. Can we just play [something] now?”
If the child insists that church attendance is required to stay out of that bad place, we recommend this line of reasoning to our daughter.
Q: “But you have to go to church, otherwise you’ll go to the bad place when you die.”
A: “My parents said that I can go to a church when I’m older, so I don’t have to worry about it now. Can we just play [something] now?”
There have been times that the child will say something proudly about the fact that they’re old enough to go now, or even that our daughter is old enough too. But at that point it’s easy enough for her to change the subject. Prior to that, she can lean on the fact that we don’t allow her to go at this age, so it’s not her choice.
Sometimes the question starts with the concept of belief instead of church attendance. In this case, this is what we tell our daughter to say.
Q: “[Why don’t you/Do you] believe in God?”
A: “I’m just a kid. I don’t think about stuff like that. Can we just play [something] now?”
But if the topic can’t be diffused, an alternative response could be something like this.
Q: “[Why don’t you/Do you] believe in God?”
A: “Which god?”
Q: (various answers from “God” or “Jesus”, to some other description)
A: “Thor is a god. Why don’t you [believe in Thor/go to church for Thor]? Can we just play [something] now?”
If the child is persistent…
Q: “Thor’s not real. God is real.”
A: “Lots of people believed in Thor like you believe in your god. He was real to them. Can we just play [something] now?”
Most of the kids are familiar with Thor from the Marvel movie The Avengers, so this is an easy one for her. I always joke with her that if you’re going to choose to worship a god, it might as well be a really cool one. And Thor has a magic hammer and can control lightning. So he is way better than Jesus in her mind.
Another way that churches recruit new sheep to the flock is by holding various events where churchgoers are encouraged to bring guests. Many of these events are targeted at children. There’s no way your child wants to miss the Harvest Festival that has games and Halloween pumpkin carving and such, when their friend asks them to go. And you will undoubtedly look and feel like a miserable, boring killjoy when you decide that your child can’t go because they’re not old enough to understand and separate the concept of a fun event from the reality of religious indoctrination. Their minds are still developing. The processes of understanding how to reason and evaluate the world can be compromised very easily in young children. As a thinking adult your child can make the proper choice. But now is not that time.
One option to try would be to go with your child to the event. Make this a requirement for her attendance. Before you go, explain to her that this fun event is something the church is doing to celebrate, but also to make money to pay for things, and maybe even to convince people to believe what they believe and start going to their church. You may also want to explain that when you go to church, you have to give them money to support them, so it’s kind of like a business where you pay for stuff. I like the coupon metaphor. You get a coupon for a free cheeseburger so that you’ll go to the restaurant, eat it, like it, and come back to pay for more later. And that’s one reason they do this kind of thing.
When there, take the opportunity to explain things to your child. For example, if there’s a fun ride or game modeled after Noah’s ark, explain that it’s from a story in the Bible and summarize the story and its implausibility for her. Could two of every animal on earth fit on a boat? How would animals get across the ocean to other countries? Why didn’t carnivores like lions try to eat the other animals? Why did their god need a man to build a boat and collect animals in the first place? There are lots of great questions for such a silly story.
The second option is to simply disallow your child from going to the event. This is the tough choice. But it’s easier if you explain what the event is about and that when she’s older she can attend these events with her friends. This is how we’ve handled it to-date, and she hasn’t created too big of a stink about it.
Once, I overheard one of my daughter’s friends tell her that Jesus died for her. So later on in the car I explained what that meant, in relatively graphic detail. I felt that she could handle it. Not every child will be ready when this subject comes up, so this is obviously a judgement call. This was consistent for us, as we try to be honest with her about the tough stuff. I gave her the quick synopsis of the New Testament:
Your friend believes that God created the first man and woman, and that the woman was fooled by a talking snake into eating a piece of fruit that God told her not to eat. So they were punished, and all people born after were punished too. Those first two people had children and all of their children got married to each other and had more children who married each other. Yes, brothers married sisters. Pretty gross, right?
So then God decided to be born on earth as Jesus (so God is his son, and the son is the father at the same time; weird right?), and then he told some people about who he was, performed some miracles like making sick people well, and then let the Roman army put a crown of thorns on his head and crucify him on a cross. Crucifying is when someone has nails hammered into their wrists and feet to attach them to a wooden cross and is left to die a horrible death.
After 3 days the zombie Jesus came back from the dead, left his burial tomb to talk to some of his followers, and then eventually vanished into heaven. He suffered this way as a punishment for what that first woman did (eating the fruit). So now when people die they can go to heaven.
So when someone corners her with the “Jesus died for you” line, I tell her that she should ask them, “Why didn’t your god just forgive people? Why did he have to kill himself?” She once told me that the talking snake thing was pretty weird. And this is from a second grader who believes in Santa Claus.
At some point you might be asked if Jesus was real. When this happened to me, after a few seconds I realized that she didn’t mean as a god. She wanted to know if he existed, historically speaking. I told her that no one knows for sure if he really existed as a human being; lots of people were named Jesus back then. But chances are that he did, as far as we know today. But many of the stories about him were written a long time after he died, by people who didn’t know him.
Our daughter has had moments where she’s asked if she can go to church with her friends, mainly because she wants to fit in and experience something new and exciting. We don’t allow this, and explain to her that going to church means that you have to believe the things that they tell you to believe, even if they’re really weird and not true. And in our family, we don’t want to believe things that aren’t true. We also tell her that they don’t like it when you ask them tough questions about their faith; the things they believe without any proof. And in our family, we ask questions and want to know what’s real and true without others telling us to just believe things without any proof.
I also remind her that when she’s older, we can all go to church so that she can see what it’s like. She likes that answer, though, she asks if we can go right now. We love her enthusiasm and curiosity. Obviously we have to tell her to wait a bit. Then she starts throwing out ages to see when she can go. Of course, she starts at her next birthday, to which we reply “no” with each successive age until she hits the later teenage years, when we respond with maybes and eventually “sure”.
You have to admire her persistence.